The Amateur Amateur: The First Ten Years

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
January 30, 2005

We've graduated from being clueless newcomers to being clueless old timers.

January marks a special anniversary for my wife Nancy and me. It was 10 years ago this month that we became Amateur Radio operators. A lot has happened during that time: upgrades, new radios, antenna adventures and the occasional meltdown. At the very least we've graduated from being clueless newcomers to the hobby to being clueless old timers.

Rowland the plastic owl

Rowland, the plastic owl, protecting the coax drip line.

If I had to sum up the past decade in one word, it would be "unexpected." The very fact that Nancy joined me when I got into the hobby was an overwhelming surprise. Up to that point she'd exhibited very little understanding of technology and, in fact, demonstrated a healthy fear of it. To this day I still admire her decision to take on the challenge of learning about radio and getting an Amateur Radio license. She's an amazing woman.

I didn't have much of a plan when I got into the hobby. I was really a police scanner buff. At the time a plethora of laws was being passed that would restrict the use of scanners. Having an Amateur Radio license afforded at least a little protection, and that's actually why I decided to get one. If I looked forward at all, I guess I figured that I would eventually become proficient at Morse code, be active in a local club, learn about the inner workings of radios and be able to repair them, and be a regular on the airwaves.

Of course, nothing like that has happened. I'd like to develop my code skills but always have something slightly more pressing to do than practice. I'm a member of a local club but never attend meetings let alone participate in its activities. I have taken a few stabs at understanding how radios work. I think I grasp the fundamentals, but I doubt I'd be able to repair one beyond replacing a broken knob. And for whatever reason, I'm still a little shy about jumping on the air and talking. So it's probably a good thing that I didn't lay down any firm expectations for myself.

I anticipated that Nancy and I would upgrade our licenses. At least we did it, but even that led to unexpected events. As soon as we obtained our General class tickets we were asked to become VEs (volunteer examiners). I didn't see that one coming at all.

Nancy's call sign cap

Nancy's "official" ham radio cap. It blew me away when she actually wore it.

The hobby itself turned out to be much more dynamic than I had expected. Somehow I had envisioned Amateur Radio as a great stone edifice--rock solid and unchanging [a lot of radio amateurs still do--Ed]. Wow, was I ever wrong about that! Almost as soon as we became hams the number of license classes jumped from five to six, although it's since decreased to three. There have been constant battles to retain our frequency allocations. Clever people keep coming up with new emission modes. The ARRL has come up with a series of telecourses for hams who wish to learn more about various aspects of the hobby. And there is an ongoing debate over Morse code that borders on becoming a holy war. So much for the engraved concrete concept.

This column was another unexpected development. Looking back I'm still astounded that I took on writing it a mere six months after getting my license. I was, in every sense, a true amateur amateur. I started writing the column for the newsletter of a local police scanner club. The idea was to encourage other members to obtain their Amateur Radio licenses by showing that not all hams were techno-wizards with an encyclopedic knowledge of radio. Basically I was trying to make the hobby seem less daunting to newcomers. I still am.

You've probably noticed that a lot of what I wound up doing had little to do with actually operating a radio. As I said before, I'm still somewhat mike shy, probably because I can't think of a lot of pithy things to say right off the top of my head. Writing this column is different. If I run out of clever things to say, I can always take a break. And unlike something spouted over the airwaves, my column can always be edited [indeed it can--Ed]. But a lot of things changed once I got into emergency communications. And like everything else related to the hobby, I hadn't anticipated becoming involved in that either.

The driving force behind our police scanner club was a fellow named Mike Redman, KA0YXU. He was also responsible for the SKYWARN program in our county, so quite naturally many of us in the scanner club migrated into weather spotting. As it turned out, the SKYWARN program was tied in with the county RACES (Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Service) organization, so we wound up affiliated with that program. Weather spotting was a good way to get on the airwaves. I didn't have to come up with clever or lengthy things to say, just short concise reports on weather conditions.

Lawn mower with antenna

For reasons I've been unable to fathom there seems to be a mag-mount mobile antenna on my lawnmower.

It was also emergency communications that drove me to finally sample the HF bands. I had a HF rig, but could barely hear anything and definitely couldn't be heard. I had very little interest in HF at the time, so my transceiver sat in the basement gathering dust. Then Nancy and I took the Level I ARRL Amateur Radio Emergency Communications course. Among other topics, it covered the National Traffic System (NTS) in detail, and some of our homework involved posting messages on it. I suppose we could have skipped that part, but it gave me incentive to improve my HF antenna system. I won't say that I became a regular on the HF bands, but I do participate in the regional HF emergency nets. Again, I don't have to say much.

And finally I joined my county's ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group. I did start out doing off-the-air things such as teaching a class, coming up with exercises for the group, and working on the group's Web site. But then the Emergency Coordinator threw me a curve ball and appointed me as the Net Manager. That pretty much guaranteed that I'd spend a lot of time on the air.

Even my own mind continually surprises me. One thing that I noticed as soon as I got my license was that Amateur Radio operators don't have last names. It appears that they turn them in after being issued ham radio call signs. Go to any club meeting, and you'll see hams stand up and introduce themselves by first name and call sign. They never mention a last name. That always troubled me, because I simply could not remember all those call signs. But I fairly recently discovered that my brain had finally activated a call sign recognition program. After almost 10 years of having no idea who was talking, I suddenly knew many people I heard on the air by call sign and first name. (For some reason, those last names continue to elude me.)

I've had many lesser--but no less unexpected--things happen. For example I put up one of those plastic owls designed to scare away birds. It's not protecting my garden. It's protecting the drip line of my coaxial cable. You can't imagine what the side of my house looked like before I got that owl. Then there was the day I saw Nancy actually wearing a baseball cap with her call sign on it. I did a double-take on that one. And for no reason that I can fathom there seems to be a magnetic mount mobile antenna on my lawn mower.

So it has been a decade full of surprises, sometimes quirky, but usually positive. I'm looking forward to the next 10 years. Will I make any predictions about what will happen? No way!

Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name -- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2005 American Radio Relay League

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